In the same week that the World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Europe now finds itself at the forefront of efforts to contain the virus. European Union Member States and others are grappling with a historic public health crisis, twinned with an economic slowdown as normal life for millions grinds to a halt.
Italy is by far the continent’s worst affected with over 15,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,000 deaths. Others are not far behind, with the number of diagnoses in Germany, France and Spain rising above 2,500 each by Friday morning. Aggressive containment measures – from school closures in Ireland to near-total lockdown in Italy – demonstrate the growing urgency of the situation.
Authorities everywhere are grappling with the question of how to regulate basic human behaviour amongst a highly mobile populace, and temporarily compromise on the freedom of movement afforded by the Single Market. Coronavirus’ spread can be attributed in part to disjointed coordination between European countries within the free-travel Schengen area so far. Outbreaks have been identified as national problems, rather than a common European one. Authorities must also contend with the rapid spread of misinformation and panic-buying.
During an extraordinary ‘tele-summit’ on Tuesday, EU heads of state agreed a policy response to both contain the spread of the virus and counter the economic fallout. In close contact with national health ministries, the European Commission will monitor the production and distribution of medicines, protective equipment and respiratory machines. It will also ensure more flexibility in budgetary and state aid rules for the Member States. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will today announce a ‘Corona Response Investment Initiative’ which should “trigger investments of €25 billion … very rapidly.” Other stimulus measures were published by the ECB on Thursday to address the economic slump.
These initiatives were set out amidst strong international pressure on Europe to contain its outbreak. On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced it would suspend travel from the Schengen area to the United States from Friday night, because “the European Union [had] failed to take the same precautions” as the US. The EU has since condemned these measures, which primarily target non-US nationals travelling from Europe, for being taken “unilaterally and without consultation.”
Back in Brussels, the EU’s institutions are not immune from the disruption. Earlier this week, the European Parliament took the unprecedented step of holding its monthly plenary for one day in Brussels, instead of its usual week in Strasbourg. Numerous meetings in the Parliament, the Commission and the Council have also been postponed or cancelled outright. With the legislative process frozen and thousands of staff already working from home, the EU’s internal, day-to-day functioning will be impaired for the foreseeable future.
Europe faces a dire situation composed of several interlocking predicaments at once. Some of Brussels’ worst torments of the preceding decade – financial turmoil, restricted freedom of movement and strained public healthcare systems – could all make an unwelcome return. Eurosceptic populism could surge amidst an economic downturn. And with a panacea looking remote, the disruption will likely get worse before it gets better. Perhaps the only certainty is more uncertainty.